What to Pack for Your Yosemite National Park Vacation

Backpack and hike boots

You are headed to Yosemite National Park where you will find yourself in Ansel Adams country amid beautiful waterfalls, outstanding views of the iconic Half Dome and ancient giant sequoia groves. But how do you pack for Yosemite, a place where valley temperatures can soar while alpine campsites can be cool? Here are the top 14 items to put in your suitcase and 1 item to leave at home.

1. Sturdy Water Shoes for Playing in Rivers and Waterfalls

If you plan on river rafting, canoeing, kayaking or just playing in the Merced River, or rivers near the park, you will want a good pair of water shoes. Flip-flops are not recommended for water activities as they will get stuck in the mud and either break or get swallowed down river. A covered rubber-toed shoe can help you avoid getting bruised toes from river rocks or cuts from stray logs. (Read more about water safety in Yosemite)

2. Binoculars to Watch Climbers and Bears

Don’t miss seeing the rock climbers on Half Dome and El Capitan or one of the park’s 500 bears tromping through a meadow. Bring along a good pair of binoculars to see it all. It’s worth talking to your local camp store employee about the different types of binoculars for sale as not all are created equal. You don’t want to end up with an extraordinarily weak pair, nor a pair too heavy to hike with. The Nikon Monarch series offers some great features.

3. Sturdy Boots for Hiking on Granite

Yosemite’s domes and peaks are made of granite. Many of the popular trails scramble around granite rockfall and waterfalls which can be hard on the feet and tricky to manuever. To make the most out of your trip, pack a pair of hard-soled, waterproof and breathable hiking boots. These will allow you to navigate wet and dry trails with ease and enable you to explore farther than you maybe would have. To get you started on your research, one of our staff members raves about his Sportiva Synthesis Mid GTX. Our friends at Backpacker magazine really liked the 2016 Vasque Skywalks GTS.

4. A Rain Jacket

Who brings rain jacket to dry California? We do. Every time we visit. In summer, afternoon rainstorms can roll in, wrecking a perfectly beautiful day. The good news is they pass quickly. The bad news is the temperature drops dramatically when it rains, turning a warm day into one that feels freezing. When it rains and temperatures plummet, you want a jacket that can keep you warm and dry.

5. A Couple Water Bottles or a Hydration System

The valley of Yosemite National Park sits at 4,000 feet. Combat the effects of elevation and sun by drinking water almost constantly. Because the air is dry, your sweat quickly evaporates. Often, you won’t know you are sweating. Drinking water ensures you won’t get dehydrated, which can lead to headaches and more serious conditions like heat cramps and heat stroke. Plan to drink .5 -1 liter per hour of hiking.

Even when you are not recreating, be sure to keep drinking. If your urine is clear, you are hydrated. We love bringing along our CamelBak, which allows us to keep sipping even as we are on the move.

6. A Sun Hat, Sunglasses and Sunscreen

You only need to have experienced the sun in the West one time before you realize how strong it really is, especially since the Yosemite Valley sits at an average elevation of 4,000. Bring a wide-brimmed hat, which is preferable over a baseball cap, to cover your entire face.

Then, apply sunscreen over all exposed skin, including the back of your neck. Sunglasses will protect your eyes from being burned and polarized lens will help you see views more clearly. Don’t forget you are 4,000 feet closer to the sun than at sea level. Purchase sunglass straps if you plan to be on the water- it can be frustrating watching your new sunglasses float down the Merced River without you.

7. Warm and Cold Clothing Layers

When you are sitting in sweltering heat in Chicago, it may seem totally ridiculous to pack a winter hat and warm layers for your Yosemite trip. Ignore your inner cynic. At 4,000 feet in the Yosemite Valley, park temperatures can fluctuate 30 degrees in one day, going from 51 F during the night to 87 F during the day. Be sure to pack light layers for daytime and others that will keep you warm in the evenings, including a winter hat, when the sun sets and cooler air moves in. You will be surprised at how quickly temperatures drop as the sun sets.

8. A Star Chart or Star App

You’ll find some dark skies in Yosemite, which is hundreds of miles from major cities. Get up high at Glacier Point or Olmsted Point for the best views. With a star chart, you’ll be able to identify some of the formations you may never have seen before, specially if you are coming from an urban environment. Or use technology and download the SkyView® Free app for iPhone or Android, which enables you to identify stars and so on by pointing your phone at them. You may be able to see up to 15,000 stars in the park’s sky in comparison to 500 in an urban sky. It’s far out!

9. A Tablecloth

It’s the little things that make a big difference. When you stop at the roadside weathered picnic table to eat lunch, pull out your tablecloth to go from downhome to gourmet in a matter of seconds. You’ll also avoid getting hard-to-remove splinters when you lean against the table.

10. Bug Spray

Spend more time enjoying the scenery instead of swatting bugs. If you don’t want to use traditional formulas that do or do not include strong chemicals, there are plenty of bug sprays available these days that are made from natural ingredients and are safer for use by children.

11. Daypack

Make going for a stroll to the Lower Fall of Yosemite Falls or a more strenuous hike to the Cathedral Lakes much more comfortable with a daypack. Place all your (and your family’s essentials) like extra layers, extra snacks, a flashlight, binoculars and simple first-aid kit in it.

12. Headlamp

Read at night in your tent comfortably with your headlamp or use this great lighting device to safely walk to and from evening ranger talks.

13. Plastic bags

Plastic bags come in handy, as well to pack out used toilet paper if nature calls while you are hiking. It’s a big no-no to try to bury toilet paper in the back country. It has to be packed out.

If you plan on taking pictures near waterfalls, you may also want to invest in a waterproof cover or water bag for your camera.

14. Bear Proof Your Car When You Pack It

Pack any scented items in your car for easy removal once you arrive at Yosemite. Why? Bears in Yosemite are attracted to virtually everything with a scent from baby wipes to canned food. Never underestimate their sense of smell or creative ability to access scented items.

According to park rules, you may store food inside your car (out of sight, with windows completely closed) only during daylight hours. You may not leave food in a pickup truck bed or strapped to the outside of a vehicle at any time. Do not store food in your car after dark: use a food locker that is supplied at almost all trailhead parking areas and lodges.

Remember to remove all scented items from your car, including food wrappers, crumbs in baby seats, baby wipes and unopened bottled drinks. Everything must go in a locked food locker as bears will break into cars and tented cabins and regular cabins (through unlocked windows) if they smell something alluring.

Leave the Bear Spray at Home

Lastly, unlike Yellowstone National Park, do not bring bear spray. It is prohibited in Yosemite. To scare a bear in a developed area, make a lot of noise, form a close group with the people you are with and never approach the bear or surround it. In the backcountry, keep your distance. In any case, always let a ranger know or leave a message at 209/372-0322.

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